That night, I have a dream: I’m riding my hoverboard along Sixth Street and I try to jump over a hydrant but come down on top of it instead. I wake up in a cold sweat, with my rib cage on fire. I grab the water bottle on my nightstand and drain it in three desperate gulps.
When my heavy breathing finally returns to normal, I ask myself: Why would I dream what I told everybody, but which never really happened? After all, I could have dreamed of a big fist, the size of a Christmas ham, aimed straight at my head. And when I duck out of the way, a vicious knee comes up and slams into my rib cage. That would have been more like it.
Then again, you can dream anything. A giant cloud can open up, sending a cascade of pinwheels sailing down to earth. But just before they hit the ground, they turn into kittens on tricycles and pedal away.
Gordon Korman’s 100th novel examines what happens when a group of five Grade 8 boys happen upon a Cold War-era underground bomb shelter after a hurricane disturbs the ground above it. At first, their new “fort” is a fun diversion, a secret they desperately hide from the adults who would take it away from them, a place to play video games, watch classic movies on a vintage VCR, and eat 40-year-old canned food. But soon it becomes a refuge from the boys’ real lives: Evan flees his older brother Luke’s bully friend Jaeger, fearful that Luke is following in their parents’ drug-addiction footsteps; Jason flees his parents’ acrimonious divorce that’s caught him in the middle; Mitchell find solace from his debilitating OCD after his mother loses her job and with it her medical insurance that pays for a therapist; C.J. ends up living in the fort to escape his abusive stepfather. Even Ricky, the newcomer they tolerate because he discovered the fort, is torn between the elite school he had to leave and his need to be accepted by his new classmates. When C.J realizes they need to let his mother stay there to protect her from her husband, the secret falls apart, and the boys lose their refuge, reluctantly confronting their real problems.
The Fort is Korman at his best, narrating in the authentic voice of kids dealing with the problems adults have bequeathed them, dealing with life in the only way they know how, and skirting trouble all along the way. As each chapter alternates the viewpoint of the main characters—with a surprise appearance from a damaged Luke—a picture emerges of the desperation and resiliency of kids seeking escape, fun, and friendship all at the same time. Jaeger is a particularly fascinating character, oozing casual cruelty; Evan and Luke exhibit the classic rivalry and tension of siblings confronting terrible parents in opposite ways; Mitchell is startlingly honest about his mental-health challenges and the strategies he’s developed to manage them. But it is C.J.’s coping with serious injury from his stepfather Marcus by inventing and recreating “death-defying” stunts on the bikes and hoverboards with which Marcus tries to buy his forgiveness that provides the most compelling and authentically youthful hijinks with its serious undercurrents.
As Korman’s a Canadian writer, it is jarring he chooses to set his books in relatively anonymous American small towns, in this case Canaan, a community hit hard by layoffs at an auto parts factory founded by the deceased eccentric builder of the bunker (when Marcus takes the family to a Hurricanes game that ends in domestic abuse, it suggests the locale is somewhere in the Carolinas). But Canaan is haunted by a realistic post-industrial malaise, as evidenced by the pawnshop the boys trade the bunker’s expensive silverware at to finance their snacks. A few details don’t quite ring true—for example, Jason is questioned by police over his parents’ financial disputes, which seems a little much for a civil divorce case. And Canadian readers will be puzzled by Ricky’s yearning to return to a “magnet school” such as the one he left when moved to Canaan (“magnet schools” are elementary schools with specialized courses that draw students from a wide region).
But as with Korman’s best work, a few incongruous details do not detract from the authentic voices, enjoyable premises, and subtly serious messages in Korman’s work. The Fort ends with advice for kids on dealing with abusive household situations and with mental-health challenges.
Todd Kyle is the CEO of the Brampton Library in Brampton, Ontario.